Sunday, January 14, 2007

Finally a Use for a Wiki

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may have noticed two recurrent themes: wikis and inspirational procrastination. Today saw the convergence of those themes into one useful project.

Last week I read this great blog article at Common Craft about using a wiki to plan a group trip. I jumped on the idea because I am hoping to meet my sister and parents in New Zealand at some time during the 2007-2008 school year.

Planning this trip could be a bit tricky. None of us have been there. I don't yet know my school calendar for that year, and we are living on different continents. Using a wiki to plan the trip seemed like just the tool to get us organized and to let me get my feet wet using a Wikispaces for a real project. We could plan it all via Skype and email, but this way, information is in one common place rather than spread across inboxes in different email accounts.

Which wiki to use? For more than a year, I've been exploring wikis, looking for the killer platform. For now, I've decided that their isn't one best wiki platform; they each have their strengths which makes different ones "best" for different jobs.

I chose Wikispaces for this project, instead of PBWiki or Wetpaint because I wanted to be able to upload more files and images than they allow. I wanted to embed gadgets. I also like being able to download a backup of the entire wiki. Finally, this wiki doesn't need to be lovely, but it does need to be easy to use, which ruled out some of the other wiki platforms that don't have easy editors.

I'm not going to link to my wiki from here to protect my family's privacy, but I will share a few nifty things I did. The first was create a trip tools page. On that page, I embedded a number of Google gadgets, such as a currency converter set to convert US dollars to New Zealand dollars. Another showed gadget placed time zone clocks on the page so at a glance we can tell the current time in Minnesota, New Zealand and Singapore.

Another nifty gadget was an editable calendar. We can add meetings and to-dos as we search for common travel dates. Eventually we can plan the itinerary on it.
There are thousands of these gadgets available. They could easily be added to blogs. Blogger now has a module for adding them. Even if your blog doesn't have a special tool for adding them, if you have access to your blog's template code, you could paste in the snippets of code for the gadgets. The gadgets generate their own code; all you need to do is paste it into your template where you want it to appear. (NOTE: The two gadgets I've shown here are just screen captures. I cannot insert a gadget into a post; they can only be inserted into the sidebars and possibly the footer.)

I added a number of other types of pages. One section is for brainstorming and it has places to brainstorm what we'd like to see, do, and visit. Related to that is a place for clippings of things we find online. For example, I get a Page-A-Day calendar via email and the other day it highlighted Marlbourough Sound on the south island. I pasted that into the wiki for my family to see. (Of course I linked back to the actual calendar page.)

Another section is for actual web resources, such as New Zealand tourism pages, guidebook websites, and airfare search engines. Still another section that is empty at this point, is where we can start uploading our itinerary information as it develops, including links to accommodations, tours we plan to take, etc.

A final section is for to-do lists and to-bring lists. My thought is that having online to-bring lists may help us each remember things we might not have thought to bring, and to prevent duplication of items (e.g. we really don't each need to bring a first aid kit).

Getting up to speed was painless. My only frustrations were that I still can't get tables to work. They won't retain their formatting. It also took me a bit of searching to figure out how to track all changes to the wiki via RSS. However, I did figure it out eventually. That will be an essential piece -- I hope I can get my parents using some sort of RSS reader. I may need to find a good one that is an extension of Firefox. Can anyone recommend a good one that will run in Firefox on a Mac? Is anyone else using a wiki to plan a family trip? Any suggestions for me? How about must-see places in New Zealand?
(This was much more fun than working on my lesson plans.)